Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Why I've been at work even though the university is closed this week

A few of my colleagues and I have gone into work every day this week, and will probably keep doing so all the way through the end of the weekend, even though the university is closed this week and we are on vacation. A number of my friends and other colleagues keep asking why, but the answer is a little difficult to explain.

It's not that I'm inarticulate or anything. I don't speak in grunts or tongues. The problem is that I love my job, and I enjoy doing it, but when I try to explain it to most people their eyes start glazing over and it seems kind of like I'm reading Babbitt out loud to them. All they hear is numbers and reports and spreadsheets and computer and charges and balances and credits and codes and blah blah blah and they've totally lost interest even though they're the one that asked what I was doing at work this week in the first place.

So people keep asking, and I keep trying to think of a way to explain, and running into a wall. I was trying to think up a short, entertaining explanation today beyond "Working on billing" when inspiration struck me: I saw a lady wearing a "WWJD?" sweatshirt at the store, and I thought, "What would Jesus do? Jesus would illustrate this with a parable. It would be about sheep and shepherds or something, and seem really simple, but really the sheep are the people and the shepherd is the Pope. Or the shepherd is Jesus. And the sheep are the Catholics. Something like that. But anyway, people would hear the story and understand!" I don't know anything about sheep, so I can't really form a good parable about them, but I do know superheroes, and I'm going to roll with that.

So, with that in mind, here's the story of why I'm at work this week, which I call "The Sun Eater is Made of Student Account Statements".

Anyway, once upon a time, there was a terrible menace called a Sun Eater, which ate suns:

the sun eater

For the purposes of our story, the Sun Eater represents improper student billing statements. It is a violent solar powered cloud of incorrect charges, double credits, and mangled financial aid caused by computer and human errors. When student accounts are correct, they are happy little stars, twinkling brightly in the university sky. When they are incorrect, the Sun Eater swallows them up, and disaster occurs.

Now, with the menace of the Sun Eater looming on the horizon, there are two computer systems on campus working to stop improper student billing statements. For the purposes of our story, we'll call them the Legion of Superheroes and the Fatal Five:

find the fatal five!

I'm not going to say which office is the Legion and which is the Fatal Five, because I don't want to imply that either our office or the Bursar's Office is evil. Instead, we'll just say that they're two completely different computer operating systems forced to work together to fight the Sun Eater, and the computer systems are getting along about as well as you'd expect:

fatal five and the legion


And while the systems are busy not communicating well, the Sun Eater is amassing more and more errors, becoming a larger and larger problem. Different people from different offices keep trying to tackle the problem individually, but it's just too big, and they get smacked around like the Sun Eater smacking around Superboy with red sun rays:

red sun rays

Everyone has to work together, and a drastic solution is called for. In this case, Tharok, the cyborg leader of the Fatal Five, invents an absorbatron bomb which will detonate in the Sun Eater's core and destroy it forever. Our absorbatron bomb is that every student account with an active contract needs to be hand checked and hand corrected, and it needs to be done now. That means somebody has to make a sacrifice, and take one for the team, or the universe will die in a flood of angry phone calls from the Sun Eater's parents.

Enter Ferro Lad:

ferro lad and superboy

Ferro Lad knows that he has the best chance of success even if he has to sacrifice himself and his week off between semesters, so he swoops in and carries that absorbatron bomb into the heart of the Sun Eater:

ferro lad and the sun eater

And Ferro Lad saves the world through the power of sacrifice, dying according to the prophecy:

death foretold

foretold by the Hag:

evillo and the hag

who turned out to be the White Witch:

the white witch of naltor

who was the sister of Dream Girl:

the menace of dream girl

and who was under a curse that could only be cured by having Dream Girl dress up as a robot:

miss terious

so that she could trick an amnesiac Supergirl:

amnesia supergirl

into tricking the Legion of Superpets into attacking the Legion of Substitute Heroes:

super pets and the subs

even though Supergirl only had temporary amnesia because Brainiac 5 made Shrinking Violet fly into her nostril:

through the nostril

and plant kryptonite in her brain:

in the brain

because he loved her.

But that's a story for another day. The moral of our story is that sometimes, for the good of the universe (or just the university), someone (or several someones in multiple offices) has to make a sacrifice and carry that absorbatron bomb (or give up their week off) to defeat the Sun Eater (or correct student accounts) so that the Sun Eater's parents don't call the president's office, and it all works out for the best for everyone.

Except Ferro Lad, who died:

memorial for ferro lad

but Ferro Lad will just take a long weekend in January or February to make up for it.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Tiny Icicles

We got some heavy snow on Christmas Eve, but in saying that I have to clarify a few things.

1) "Heavy snow" doesn't mean the same thing in Tennessee as it does in New York. In Tennessee, this closes schools:


In New York, this does:

lots of snow

Both of these are called "heavy snow", though, and that brings me to my second point.

2) Just because your heavy snow is measured in feet and our heavy snow is measured in inches, that doesn't mean that our heavy snow isn't terrible. People who live in consistently snowy climates have things that we don't.

First, they have experience in dealing with it. They know how to drive in it. They know better than to careen wildly through the city streets in their cars while screaming in terror and somehow believing that the trick to driving in bad weather is to drive even faster. People in Tennessee don't know this. People in Tennessee are born in Florida and move to Tennessee and experience snowy driving conditions for the first time after they've been driving in regular conditions for a couple of decades. Not only that, but even if they're a fast learner they have few opportunities. To learn how to drive in snow, they need to have snow more than three times a year.

Second, you have plows. I have yet to see a functioning snowplow south of the state of Pennsylvania. I'm sure they exist, but I'm also sure they don't have any in my town. We can't afford to spend $80,000 per vehicle on a fleet of trucks that we will only use once a year, unless those vehicles are somehow related to football or Jesus. I'm reasonably sure that we don't have sand and salt trucks, either. That means that when it snows here, the snow just sits on the road until it gets compacted into ice by the weight of cars driving over it or until it melts. That's why when it snows here the response is generally, "I'll just stay in my house until it's gone."

Anyway, before I got all ranty, I was trying to say that we had heavy snow the other day. (FINE. It wasn't as heavy as YOUR snow, Northerners. Can't we all just agree that snow is terrible and move on?) Since I was already out of the house, and there was no one on the roads, I decided to go try to take some snowy pictures at the university gardens, but I only ended up liking three of them.

This one with the holly berries is kind of holiday winter festive:

holly, berries, snow

and I like the effect of the frozen rose in focus in this one while the rest of the rose garden is all blurry and suggestive of winter without actually being all "look at the gigantic snow drifts":

frozen roses

but my favorite one is the repair that someone's made to the broken rabbit statue:


He's practically a jackalope now!

Even more than the snow pictures, though, I really like the ones I got of the little tiny icicles clinging to the rusty truck installation:

rust and icicles (1)

rust and icicles (2)

window icicle (1)

window icicle (2)

It's such an odd contrast to see this blocky, massive truck with these delicate tiny icicles all over it like little jewels.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

My Christmas with Superboy and Coq au Vin

I know I shouldn't be annoyed that people are concerned about me spending so much time by myself. It's nice that people care, and that they worry. Lots of people have no one who cares or gets worried, and it bothers them, so I should be grateful for what I have.

I still get annoyed.

I have explained, more than once, that I like being alone. I find it restful. Being alone helps me to decompress from work, personal stress, or whatever else is bothering me, but everyone I know seems to see it as some horrible fate to be avoided at all costs, and it's all I've heard for the past week and a half.

"You're not going anywhere for Christmas?"

"There's no one you can be with at Christmas?"

"You're going to spend Christmas... all alone?"

Eventually I got tired of just saying, "Yes, that's right," while giving people the blank uncomprehending stare of a social outcast, and I decided to find someone special to spend Christmas Day with:

christmas superboy

Superboy, the man who's never let me down.

We did all the usual Christmas things. I poured myself a tall glass of eggnog, and then we spent some time trimming the tree:

tree trimming

The Superman ornament ended up near the top, of course, while Spider Man ended up on the bottom, in the back. Once the tree was trimmed, we spent some time opening my Christmas presents:

christmas giftcards

Thanks for the Starbucks card, Mom and Dad!

Once that was over, I made some snacks (cocktail weenies in BBQ mustard sauce and leftover deviled eggs from Christmas Eve dinner at Jeannie's house), and then Superboy and I settled in for a day of heartwarming family movies:

holiday films

After the movies, I decided that I was going to cook a large, complicated Christmas dinner. I've been saving my friend Scott's Coq au Vin recipe for this for several months now, and after going shopping yesterday I was all ready to work on it today. Before anyone says anything, I (and, I assume, Scott) realize that this is not a traditional French coq au vin. It's a simplified American take on it using chicken breasts and only an hour or so of actual cooking time, so please don't lecture me like Tom Colicchio did to Casey on the third season of "Top Chef" when she said she was making coq au vin but really only made chicken in wine sauce for three hours.

Other than the hour of cooking time, this took me a little over a half hour of prep time, because there is a lot of slicing:

prep work (1)

I repeat, a lot of slicing:

prep work (2)

I did the bacon with kitchen scissors, because it was fast, and this marks the first time that I've ever used mushrooms in anything I cooked. I don't like them, particularly, but the recipe implied that they would cook down, so I went for it after I wiped them down with a damp cloth as I have been instructed by the Food Network. Rachel Ray says that if you wash them they absorb too much water, and you should wipe them down with a damp paper towel instead. I was also worried that if I left them out it would remove too much liquid from the recipe.

As you can see from the picture above, I had everything set out in bowls based on when it had to go into the pot, so that I could move from step to step. Not doing this used to trip me up horribly when I was trying to follow complicated recipes, but several seasons of "Top Chef" have finally drilled the importance of a properly prepared mise en place before I start into my head. Using the term "mise en place" also lets me imply that I know a lot more about cooking than I actually do, and really, who doesn't like to look smarter?

Once everything was ready, I rinsed my chicken breasts, almost lost one down the garbage disposal while performing the gross-ectomy ("gross-ectomy" is my own term for the process where I hold the chicken over the sink with tongs while carefully trimming off any pieces that look gross to me; this includes weird fat globules, big red veins, pieces that look a little gristley, etc.), and then dredged them in flour and arranged them in the bottom of the pan in some melted butter and olive oil:

browning the dredged chicken

After the chicken was browned on both sides (I gave it four minutes a side), I removed it from the pot, set it on a plate, and dumped in the bacon and minced shallots:

bacon and shallots

After that browned for about five minutes, I added the mushrooms, which steamed a lot, making the picture a little hazy:

added mushrooms

After five more minutes and a couple of stirs, I returned the chicken to the pan and added the herbs:

chicken and herbs

I'm used to rosemary and thyme, but this also called for herbs de Provence, and you would not believe the smell. As soon as it hit the chicken and the heat opened the herbs up it was indescribably appetizing, and I decided that I want to add herbs de Provence to everything, forever. I pretty much gave myself a facial leaning over the steaming pot to repeatedly inhale.

After the chicken and herbs were in the pot for a minute or two I added the carrots and the cabernet sauvignon:

wine and carrots

and then stirred it repeatedly, making sure to scrape my wooden spoon all over the bottom of the pan to deglaze it. They always say to do that on the Food Network, because all of those little bits in the bottom of the pan are where the flavor is.

After that, it just had to simmer with the lid on for a while:

simmering with homer and marge

As a side note, I highly recommend watching Dead Ringer, with Bette Davis, while preparing this. The movie starts out a little slow, so you can work on your mis en place and then go through the setups and cooking steps, and by the time you set the pot to simmer alone for a while the movie has picked up to the parts where you want to give it your full attention. It's a win/win for everybody.

When the timer went off I forked out a chicken breast, and decided to taste it immediately. It was so good that I was three or four bites in before I remember that there were also carrots I could be eating and that I should take a picture:

finished coq au vin

It's really good. I want to thank Scott for the recipe, even if I did wait three or four months to actually cook it.

I also want to thank Superboy, for making sure that I didn't spend Christmas... alone.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Eve with Victorian Pirate Mardi Gras Drum Major Santa

I've seen a few weird Santas over the years. Growing up, we most often saw Santa Claus at company Christmas parties on post, which meant that Santa was most often portrayed by whichever private lost the coin toss and had to put on the costume. This also meant that some years we had a black Santa, a Latino Santa, and at least once I remember seeing an Asian Santa. It also explains why this Santa, from Christmas 1975, has on a big black pair of standard issue Army "birth control" glasses:

Christmas, 1975

He's not a Buddy Holly fan.

I've seen a few weird Santas since moving to Tennessee, like Halloween Santa:

halloween santa?

or the horror of the mouthless Santa creature:

mouthless santa

but I have no explanation for this:

victorian pirate mardi gras santa

Santa is going to Mardi Gras? That's why he's wearing gold, green, and purple? But Santa is also a pirate? That's why he has an eyepatch? And he has a holiday festive Victorian top hat, for some reason? Oh, and he has that baton, so he's a drum major, right?

Merry Christmas, Happy Talk-Like-A-Pirate-Day, Happy Mardi Gras, and enjoy the parade, everybody!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Elizabeth says it's really easy

A few weeks ago my friend Elizabeth posted on facebook that she had made some fudge, and that it came out really well. She mentioned that the fudge came from a kit, and that it was "really easy", but I've heard that story about kits before. I've tried "really easy" knitting kits from Target and still managed not to make a scarf, really easy paint-by-number kits that invariably don't come with enough paint or require the painter to have the steady hand skills of a neurosureon to fill in a numbered space three atoms wide with the brush provided, and I'm not even going to get into the kinds of disasters that men with hairy arms can have should they accidentally spill part of the "really easy" home candlemaking kit.

You name the "really easy" kit, and I can tell you that it's not only possible but also likely that I will manage to screw it up.

I kept thinking about that fudge kit, though, and the more I did the more I thought I should give it a try. After all, I like fudge, and buying fudge comes out to about the same price as buying the "really easy" fudge kit.

the famous fudge kit (1)

Not only that, but as much as I love Elizabeth and have eaten at her and Ben's house a number of times, I've never seen Elizabeth prepare actual food. I've seen her put things in the microwave, but I've never seen her prepare something from a list of ingredients. She may cook all the time when she doesn't have friends over, but in my head I have this impression that she doesn't cook, so when she said the kit was "really easy", it seemed like it probably really was really easy. I like things that are easy and, like I said, I like things that are fudge, so I bought my kit and this afternoon I popped it open and got to work.

You have to add your own butter, but everything else comes in the box:

the famous fudge kit (2)

Following the directions, the first thing I did was pour the evaporated milk, butter, and sugar into a sturdy saucepan:

butter, sugar, evaporated milk (1)

Then I stirred it until the sugar dissolved. It didn't say to do that in the instructions, just to stir once it was boiling, but I thought it might boil faster if the ingredients were evenly distributed through the pot. I don't know if that actually helped or not, but it boiled anyway:

butter, sugar, evaporated milk (2)

After it boiled for four minutes, I removed it from the heat and added the marshmallows and chocolate and stirred vigorously, as instructed:

add marshmallows

and lo and behold, my fudge suddenly looked like the fudge on the front of the box:

swirly fudge

It was shiny and swirly and smooth and glossy, and all I had to do was spread it in the shallow pan that came in the box and smooth the top, and my fudge would be perfect, just like the fudge on the box.

And that's when something happened.

I have no idea what, but somewhere between the pot and the pan my fudge's texture changed from smooth and glossy to dull and clumpy. The fudge on the box looks like liquid satiny chocolate sliced into tiny perfect squares, and my fudge?

choppy fudge

My fudge looks like an old pioneer woman's face.

It tastes fine. I just wish it was pretty.

Friday, December 17, 2010

A limited view of Thursday's ice storm

Wednesday night, as Jeannie and I were leaving a spontaneous dinner at the Olive Garden with Jeremy (who is now three and will repeat any word he hears; hearing him blurt "sloppy freakshow babies", which he learned from watching "Glee", in the middle of the Olive Garden made me laugh so hard I almost choked), we felt a tiny drizzle of rain on our faces.

By Thursday morning, the city was shut down. The University was on a delay until 10 AM, something that's only happened twice since 2006 (and one of the those times was this past Monday; we're having a pretty bad winter by Tennessee standards), and then was delayed again until noon. At 9 AM, I thought I might leave my apartment and go take some pictures around my apartment complex before I had to leave for work.

Before anyone says anything, yes, I know you're not supposed to do that and it's one of the very things that the police warn you against. I've been in ice storms before, more than once. Cars slide all over the place, tree limbs crash without warning from the weight of the ice, and power lines fall down and electrocute you like Elijah Wood in "The Ice Storm", although that leaves open the possibility that your death will be a hauntingly beautifully filmed scene courtesy of Ang Lee. Fully aware of the danger, I reasoned that I could stay inside my apartment complex walkways and still see railings, trees, bushes, and other things coated with ice without going anywhere near power lines.

Unfortunately, I could not get off of my porch. There are eight or ten (I've never counted, and I'm already comfortable so I'm not going to count now) steps leading from my porch down to the ground, and they are solid concrete. Like the rest of the porch, the steps were completely covered with about a half inch of ice:

half inch of ice

and the only way to get down them would have been to sit down and slide down them on my butt. I thought about this for a moment, as I could deal with a bit of a wet butt if I might end up with some nice pictures to show for it, but then I realized that if I got down the steps I might not be able to get back up them. I'm a large person, and gravity is not usually my friend, which means I try not to mix gravity with concrete. As such, my photos of the ice storm are limited to the things I could see from my porch:

plant hooks

frozen beetle

After that I went back inside and called in to work for the day.